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Croke Park Classic serves up a thrilling spectacle

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Running Back Bill Belton, Penn State, is tackled by University of Central Florida safety Brandon Alexander

Running Back Bill Belton, Penn State, is tackled by University of Central Florida safety Brandon Alexander

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Bill Belton, Penn State, in action against University of Central Florida

Bill Belton, Penn State, in action against University of Central Florida

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Breshad Perriman, University of Central Florida, gets possession ahead of Penn State Safety Ryan Keiser

Breshad Perriman, University of Central Florida, gets possession ahead of Penn State Safety Ryan Keiser

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University of Central Florida, Wide Receiver, Josh Reese, fails to catch a pass under pressure from Penn State, Cornerback, Trevor Williams

University of Central Florida, Wide Receiver, Josh Reese, fails to catch a pass under pressure from Penn State, Cornerback, Trevor Williams

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Penn State Christian Hackenberg in action against University of Central Florida

Penn State Christian Hackenberg in action against University of Central Florida

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A general view of the Croke Park Classic 2014 between Pennsylvania State University, in possession, and University of Central Florida.

A general view of the Croke Park Classic 2014 between Pennsylvania State University, in possession, and University of Central Florida.

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Penn State players celebrate after the game

Penn State players celebrate after the game

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Running Back Bill Belton, Penn State, is tackled by University of Central Florida safety Brandon Alexander

The walk down Jones' Road towards Croke Park on the last weekend of August is a familiar one but Saturday had an altogether different feel to it.

A quick glance at the couple wearing Kerry and Mayo jerseys gives a gentle reminder of what might have taken place at the GAA's headquarters, but that notion is quickly forgotten when an American Football is arrowed in my direction.

As I follow the order to 'toss the pigskin' back where it came from, the realisation that the 'Croke Park Classic' is about so much more then just the game begins to set in.

The novelty factor of the 'event' from an Irish perspective is clear to see but for the 20,000 Americans who flocked to Dublin, it goes far beyond that.

The idea of turning up to the game without team colours simply isn't entertained as young children and older folk are proudly draped from head to toe in gold and white.

Not only was it the first time University of Central Florida Knights (UCF) and Penn State Nittany Lions (PSU) had played outside America, but it was also the opening game of their season - which heightened expectations of the 53,304 strong crowd.

With UCF acting as the home side, the colour and noise from outside the ground spilled into the stadium as kick-off approached.

Keeping in the spirit of college football, the GAA decided to lift their usual ban on drinking alcohol in seats.

For once a Mexican wave didn't seem out of place at a sporting event as the crowd soaked up the carnival atmosphere.

A spine-tingling rendition of 'the Star-Spangled Banner' had an eerie feel to it as you were almost expecting the ground to open up a la the famous American football scene in the Batman movie 'The Dark Knight Rises'.

The deafening sound of two F16 Fighter Jets searing over Dublin 3 followed a PSU mascot parachuting his way into the stadium.

Unfortunately for his UCF compatriot, he completely misjudged his landing and ended up on a train track in Drumcondra.

For Sean Galvin, a 24-year-old Cork native, it signalled a proud moment for him as he led his UCF team-mates onto a pitch that he dreamt of one day playing on - albeit in an entirely different sport.

"I thought it was going to be in the GAA in a Cork jersey but it was great to be out here representing UCF and I really appreciate Croke Park inviting us over," Galvin said afterwards.

Idolising

Galvin who is a kicker with UCF, moved to Florida with his family when he was 14 and grew up idolising Cork GAA stalwart Diarmuid O'Sullivan.

"Diarmuid grew up, up the road from me. I met him every once in a while. He's a good old laugh - he's a really good guy.

"I had about 40 or 50 relatives here today - a bunch of cousins, aunts, uncles all from Cork.

"Running onto the field was awesome. The atmosphere was great - I could hear a few Irish chants so that was home-like."

The game itself matched the level of entertainment that had gone before. The star of the show was unquestionably quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who set a PSU single-game passing record with a remarkable 454 yards.

Hackenberg is certainly a name that fans can expect to see amongst the elite in the NFL in the future.

PSU edged a cagey opening half 10-3 but what was to follow in the second was worth the entrance fee alone.

With 90 second left on the clock, Justin Holman found a gaping hole in the PSU defence to cruise over the end zone for a touchdown that levelled the game. Shawn Moffitt held his nerve to add the extra point to put UCF into a 24-23 lead but incredibly that wasn't the end of the late drama.

PSU worked their way deep into UCF territory and as it looked like it would be the Floridan college who would head back over the Atlantic with the 'Dan Rooney Trophy', Sam Ficken stepped up to land a 36-yard field goal as the clock ticked dead.

For PSU's coach James Franklin, it represented a winning start (26-24) to his tenure in charge, and reflecting on his stay in Ireland, he said that after some early reservations, he found the trip a huge success.

"All the stuff that went with it, I wasn't real excited about the trip. I thought it could be a distraction but in the end I think it was a real positive experience and couldn't be more blessed and fortunate to have had the opportunity," he said.

"It was great. The people were unbelievable, the food was great, the hotel was great. Croke Park's hospitality was first class from the time we stepped off the plane until the end. "I would hope that they'd get the chance to come visit us for one of our home games. It was unreal - a really great experience."

Those sentiments were echoed by UCF coach George O'Leary, whose both sets of grandparents were born in Ireland.

"I think it was a great experience for the players. The Irish were very kind to us where we stayed at Carton House," he said.

The Croke Park Classic is estimated to have been worth €30m to the economy and fans inside the stadium were treated to some breathtaking displays of athleticism.

"I hope people in Ireland get excited about the sport and it grows more than it already is," Franklin said.

Judging by Saturday's thrilling experience, that would appear to be a given.

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